The fickle world of promotion

The Sutton Trust continues its run of interesting research on diversity in education and the professions with a new report on ‘private pay progression‘.  They introduce it by saying this:

Whilst the issue of access to the professions is relatively well understood, there is limited understanding of the impact of entrants’ backgrounds on success once in graduate employment.


The main findings that are that:

over a period of three years, private school alumni’s pay grew by 11% more than their state-educated peers (see Table 1).


This is supported by, “a study by the Social Market Foundation for the Sutton Trust has shown that, by the age of 42, a privately educated person will earn £193,700 more than a state educated person,” and, “Laurison and Friedman’s report on the ‘Class Ceiling’, which explains that “the upwardly mobile have, on average, considerably lower annual incomes (£8-14k) than higher-origin colleagues” even when they control for a range of different variables.”  In the Sutton Trust study:


Over half the pay difference can be explained by the variables controlled for in our research, such as type of higher education institution attended. However other factors also play an important role in graduate pay progression

They suggest:

A plausible explanation is that non-academic skills such as articulacy or assertiveness could play an important role in accessing high-status jobs and career progression once in employment.

And add that:

…while candidates from non-privileged backgrounds score highly in most non-academic skills, they disproportionately lack self-confidence and awareness.

What they mean by awareness is not immediately clear.  They go on:

differences in social capital [networks etc.] explained part of the pay disadvantage of the upwardly mobile.


There is the  usual suggestion that employers should better train their non-privileged employees to be more self-confident and ‘aware’ and an acknowledgement that in areas such as the the solicitors’ profession much of the progression in salary during these first three years is baked into the training contract.  The results may thus suggest that it is as much from more privileged backgrounds getting the better (in terms of salary ) training contracts as it is them being more assertive, articulate or having better networks.  And whilst the survey speaks intelligently to a concern that professional employers are as great at identifying (and now promoting) talent as they think they are even though this should be an fundamental  for human capital businesses, I can’t help imagining any managing partner reading the survey and then saying, well we want articulate, well networked , assertive individuals so what’s the problem?  (Yes, I know it’s implausible to imagine a managing partner reading the survey, but you get the point).

Of perhaps greater interest to that rather insensitive, kind of bottom line thinking is another finding from the survey:

graduates from less privileged backgrounds are marginally more likely to remain in high-status jobs, with 71% still in such employment three and half years later (compared to 65% for their more privileged peers) (Figure 1), although this difference is only marginally statistically significant.

Rougher, more loyal diamonds vs floppy haired fickle fellas*?  Well, we can see who is winning that fight so far.


  • Apologies for the excessive, steroptypical alliteration, but I had to work the title in somewhere.


11 thoughts on “The fickle world of promotion

  1. Another way of looking at this is that employers should teach working-class employees the attitudes of the middle-classes.
    We are already seeing some major law firms being CV-blind in recruitment. Are they now to be interview-blind as well, in case middle-class interviewees come across as more self-confident and assertive than working-class ones?

  2. So the Sutton Trust (which supports soft offers from universities to comprehensive-school candidates) also thinks it is the role of employers to correct the failings of schools.

    And the Argentinian gentleman in charge at the Vatican is of the RC persuasion.

    And ursines defecate where arboreals abound.

    1. The Sutton Trust supports slightly lower offers for comprehensive school pupils because they do better at university than the public school kids with slightly higher grades. If the boot was on the other foot, there’d be gnashing of teeth about state sponsored grade inflation. Go figure.

  3. Let’s cut the Gordian knot. Let’s stop telling universities what sort of school (let alone what school) candidates come from.No soft offers, no social engineering – and no privilege, no old-school-tie either. Go figure.

    1. Contextual admission is not social engineering: it’s about getting the most able kids into the best universities.

  4. Most able can only be judged (except where interviewing is still possible, and that’s rare) by exam results. Johnnie, whose parents left him with nannies and prep schools and public schools throughout his childhood and whose parents think of education as a commodity to be purchased and that you can solve any problem by throwing money at it may have a harder struggle than Jilly in whose impoverished home education was Priority One. Contextual admission is social engineering based on stereotypes.

    The Universities do not need to know what school you were at – or whether your parents went to University. This is not East Germany.

    1. Your factual premise is wrong. The point about contextual admission is ability can be and is better judged than just on exam results.

  5. No matter how you cut the mustard, no matter what you make of the figures (and post hoc does not equal propter hoc) to give applicants from independent schools harder offers than candidates from state schools is to penalise those candidates for their background. If that was happening the other way round imagine the squeals from Sutton.

    Why do universities need to know what their applicants’ parents do for a living or whether they went to university? Should that not be regarded as their personal data?

  6. No: it’s an offer consonant with a guess at a person’s ability based on doubtful statistics and class spite and prejudice instead of a guess based on objective fact.

    Not only should universities not know what sort of school applicants went to or anything about their parents’ backgrounds; offers should be made after A-level results for the following year: so that everyone would have to take a gap year. Some would decide not to take up the place but they would correlate largely with those who know drop out – it would be better if they dropped out early without wasting tie and incurring huge debts. Ideally those offered places in September or October for the following October would not have to put up too much money until March or April to give them time to withdraw without major financial loss.

  7. Having been a practising and an academic lawyer I have to say that in practice I have come across far more first generation entrants, like myself, than in academia. At least the training contract salary is enough to live on and whilst the ‘soft’ skills gap identified by the Sutton Trust may restrict relative progress, there are opportunities to work hard, exceed income generation targets and make progress that way. My academic colleagues are fantastic people, but there is a general lack of deep understanding among many that the route to an academic career (PhD essential nowadays) is almost entirely closed off to those without some family support behind them. Once established as academics with the luxury to do almost what they want, at least in research terms, they tend to pass this message along to students – crime, family, feminist legal studies etc etc – may all be, reasonably, equal in academia but a career focused first generation scholar needs to be more strategic. Unfortunately, reliable advice in this respect seems to be lacking. Chances are that students with family members who are professionals have a much better chance of being advised about careers as they progress through university.
    In summary, I support the Sutton Trust’s continuing attempts to highlight issues of inequality, but we shouldn’t forget that a crucial point at which change could occur – degree study – is more than ever, at least in the last few decades, dominated by academic faculty who are drawn from the reasonably affluent middle classes and above and who (because of the recent move to PhD dominance) are increasingly unlikely to have any practice experience themselves (or even any type of work experience outside of the academy).

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